Emerson and Fuller worked closely together to publish translations of Asian religious texts, one of the earliest appearances of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures in America. Emerson and Thoreau shared this interest in Asian religious thought, which provided them with important confirmation of their deeply held beliefs about the unity of the cosmos.
In 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson and settled in Concord, establishing himself permanently in a town with deep ancestral connections and an appealing surrounding countryside. Emerson's devotion to Concord was deep, and he found there a stimulating and supportive community of friends and family who were essential to his remarkably steady productivity as a writer and lecturer.
The publication of "Nature" and his annual lecture series led to two important speaking invitations at Harvard: the annual address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society on August 31, 1837, and a graduation address at the Harvard Divinity School on July 15, 1838.
Both addresses had an immediate impact. In the first, Emerson stressed the importance of an openness to new thought, and a constant process of beginning anew. His was not a philosophy for the settled or for those who lacked curiosity. "The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul."
The next year, in the Divinity School Address, he put forward his ideas as a new religious doctrine, or more accurately, as the recovery of the ancient foundation of all religious sentiment. The address unleashed a furious controversy. "In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man," he commented. "This the people accept readily enough, & even with loud commendation, as long as I call the lecture, Art; or Politics; or Literature; or the Household; but the moment I call it Religion, they are shocked, though it be only the application of the same truth which they receive everywhere else, to a new class of facts."
It may be difficult for modern readers to discern what was shocking about Emerson's appealing hymn to a sentiment of religion alive in every man and woman. But decades of theological controversy had produced raw nerve endings in New England. The Divinity School Address marked a break in the course of religious thinking in America, pointing to a universal, anti-supernatural, and largely secular religion.
Emerson avoided the controversy, believing he could best advance his views through a more complete exposition of his ideas. In 1841 he published "Essays," a collection of 12 loosely interrelated pieces that made up the heart of his new perspective on religion, ethics, and aesthetics and established him as an important literary stylist and innovator.
Emerson is perhaps most widely known for one of the essays in that volume, "Self-Reliance," an emotionally charged, aphoristically dense hymn to individualism with a defiant, almost insolent, edge. Insisting that "nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind," Emerson urges us to beware of the two chief obstacles to living a self-reliant life, conformity and consistency. We achieve fulfillment not through pleasing others or adopting their opinions or standards of behavior, Emerson maintains, but instead through recognizing and developing those things that are uniquely ours.
Resisting the pressures of others is, however, far less difficult than resisting the patterns established by our own past actions, and by the identities we have formed as a result of them. The hardest task is to "live ever in a new day," always finding the capacity for spontaneity and originality. That this spontaneity might lead others who thought they could anticipate our actions to misunderstand us should not impede us:
Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
"Self-Reliance" can be misread as a dangerously self-indulgent rationale for egotism. But Emerson's faith in the self was an expression of his larger faith in the unified constitution of things. Though the essay is at points combative and antagonistic, its underlying premises are unitary and holistic.
I behold with awe & delight many illustrations of the One Universal Mind. I see my being imbedded in it. As a plant in the earth so I grow in God. I am only a form of him. He is the soul of Me. I can even with a mountainous aspiring say, I am God, by transferring my Me out of the flimsy & unclean precincts of my body, my fortunes, my private will, & meekly retiring upon the holy austerities of the Just & the Loving upon the secret fountains of Nature.